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Get the word out on English errors.

This is a plea to all word-lovers. For the people who couldn't care less, please ignore this letter. (Time is too precious to waste.)

I have had a bad week. I have read three glaring howlers in prestigious literary works. (Two of them were in an otherwise stunning best-seller.) In this day and age do we still have typographical errors? Could that be it?

I no longer trust anyone to get anything right, myself included, and am avid for rules and tips from other word-lovers. Perhaps we can put the North East on the map with regard to word-power.

Here are a few of what I consider to be easy, comforting regulations.

1. It is always "Between you and me". Never "Between you and I."

2. Now to the vexed question of "its", with or without an apostrophe . "It's" is a shortened version of it is. ("It's a lovely day.") Without an apostrophe, it is the possessive case - just like "his" or "her". ("The dog is big. Its coat is matted.")

3. "Just desserts" is wrong, and totally absurd. (Unless you're running a restaurant and solely provide puds.) It is "just deserts" - it comes from the verb to deserve, and obviously means comeuppance.

4. Hoi polloi means "the masses" (from the Greek meaning "many".) It does not mean the "cream of society", although I know of two occasions when the guest speaker has been so introduced.

5. Less and fewer. Less is used with singular nouns - less snow, less sugar, less money, less fruit. Fewer is used for plural nouns - fewer snowballs, fewer sugar lumps, fewer coins, fewer apples.

6. Femme fatale. Femme is pronounced "fam", not fem. (Two plummy voiced fashion experts on Woman's Hour said "fem" right through a recent broadcast. Absolutely toe-curling.)

7. A personal plea. My own current horror is concerned with the F-words which seem to have invaded every corner of our lives. "Fink" for think and "free" for three, etc. etc. (Which, by the way, is pronounced ET cetera and not EX cetera.) I bow to traditional Cockney, but the f-words are everywhere. It makes us sound as if we're all still in Kindergarten, plus it could be totally confusing. We shall end up with "free free finkers" and not know the difference between death and losing our hearing! ("Oh no, another deaf.") I know of a charming 20-year-old who constantly calls her best friend "Roof".

Fellow wordsmiths. I'm awaiting your pearls of wisdom.

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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 24, 2004
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